Notes of Success

Tips and news about writing, and writing in education.

Congratulations are in order

With more than 300 Western Australian teachers holding a certificate in the Born Storytellers Creative Writing PD Masterclass for ATAR English Teachers, it would be expected to see improvements in students’ exam performance in the Composing section.

The hard work that teachers carry out is appreciated, and it is producing results. What, perhaps, is less surprising is how improvements in the Composing section have come at the cost of both Comprehending and Responding.

Some data to think about

The chart above illustrates the mean exam performance between 2016, when Composing was first added to the ATAR course, and the 2020 exam. The gap between the overall mean exam score (red line) and the mean score of the Composing section (blue columns) is noteworthy.

Clearly, Composing is gaining ground at the expense of other sections of the course, although I’m not convinced that is overall a good thing. A much more pleasing result would be to see Composing gain ground and lift the overall mean score along with it.

Examiners’ comments credited the significantly improved performance in Composing (Section Three) for 2019 as being “reflective of candidates’ growing skills in composing imaginative, persuasive and interpretive texts”. It’s a pleasing comment.

However, they slated the poor performance of Section One (Comprehending) as the primary concern for the drop in overall mean (see the chart below) , commenting that “many candidates experienced difficulty in addressing the syllabus concepts within the questions; concepts that they often explored more successfully with their studied texts.”

I think there is some logic to this. In the first place, familiarity with texts with which students have spent time and the illustration of concepts that that study time provides is going to produce a subject specific understanding. The critical issue is learning how to apply that learning to less familiar texts.

An effective lexicon tool developed early in the course and used on a regular basis throughout would be most helpful in this. This is something we have discussed in the ATAR Masterclass Program, but possibly warrants more time and further development.

A lexicon tool can help students Acquire the knowledge of concepts teachers use across the course; it encourages them to Inquire into language; they use it regularly to Practice applying their discoveries; their progress of learning can be assessed through their Production of the concepts in essays and other writing; they are motivated to Discuss their findings and learning with others; and they Collaborate in developing and cementing their knowledge.

Writing What You Know

The dramatic jump in the 2019 Composing score appears to have come at the expense mostly of Comprehending (which recovered some ground in 2020). Responding shows a decline from 2018 to 2019, and remains at that level for 2020. We do need to consider that the analysis of 2020 results does not take into account the possible negative effects of COVID-19 on the performance of students.

When looking at the 2019 Composing examiners’ report, I find the following comment particularly enlightening …

Importantly, several questions in this section allowed candidates to write on topics with which they had significant background knowledge. This resulted in compositions that were informed, credible, confident and, at times, demonstrated great sensitivity and authenticity.

Generally speaking, this is the heart of the concept of ‘writing what you know’. Writers will always be more authentic when the source topic is something they are familiar with. This authenticity will resonate with readers because it informs the voice and allows more concrete expression of observations, interpretations and ideas. It is what we are always seeking.

In comparison, the marking focus for the 2020 exam centred on what the examiners identified as “command words … providing nuances which served as discriminators in marking.” These included accurate understanding of instructive terms such as ‘reflect’, as well as interpretive ones such as ‘great’ and ‘quiet’. This focus on language and vocabulary points to a need to develop careful and close reading of instructive texts (which is what an exam question is), and drawing meaning from the words, and then using that meaning to express an understanding or idea.

The Fallacy of Audience

One disturbing comment from the 2020 examiners’ report on Composing, is “the lack of attention given to audience, particularly when composing persuasive and interpretive texts”. ‘Audience’ as a term and concept for writers is especially problematic and is deserving of much greater examination.

When thinking about audience, we need to be thinking about a question of intention — which may well encompass audience, purpose and context together — but it’s important to understand that writers, as a rule, do not have an intended audience in mind; to do so is likely to result in work that resembles other work, underdeveloped and lacking in a sense of authenticity.

Intention applies to the work itself much more than it does to the writer, and works frequently find themselves in front of audiences they never dreamed they would. We can well ask, “What is the intention of the work?” because the work has left the author and become the subject of the reader. The meaning the work produces occurs in the mind of the reader, so what the author may (or may not) have intended is at best irrelevant, at least impossible to access. This is no less true of a work produced by an exam student than it is of the great novelist.

Interpretive and persuasive writings differ in this from fictional narrative writing (or poetry, drama, screenwriting etc..) in  that there is a certain practicality assumed in their forms, and as Wimsatt and Beardsley say, they are “successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention”, which suggests that they are perhaps more abstract than is fiction, say. “Intention of the author,” they argue, “is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”

Which leaves us with the question of what it is examiners could/should/might judge instead.

Where to from here, then?

It is noteworthy that there has been a steady decline in (but a significant drop in 2019 and 2020) the number of students sitting the ATAR English exam — 11,285 in 2016; 9821 in 2020 (an overall drop of 12.9%).

As I pointed out above, COVID-19 has likely had a dramatic effect on 2020, but that doesn’t explain the decline in candidature across other years. However, the proportion of students attempting the Composing section of the exam has remained relatively steady within the range of 99.57% (2016) and 99.74% (2019). These figures go against a rising trend of overall numbers of students enrolled in Year 11 and Year 12 study.

Perhaps there is an argument for a more integrated approach to three sections of the course: an approach in which Composing (creative writing if you like) feeds the understanding of Comprehending (and Responding), for example, rather than trying to make concepts of Comprehending fit or determine practices of Composing.

The Creative and the Receptive are two halves of a whole — that is, readers and writers exist in a relationship of some tension (readers cannot exist without writers, but the inverse is not necessarily true). In my mind, it is a fallacy to drive the writing by some sense of readership that justifies its existence.

I would like to invite some commentary on how we might see a picture emerge in which Comprehending results continue to show pleasing growth, but not so much at the expense of  Comprehension and Responding.



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